Local law enforcement officers are getting much needed manpower and training support from the federal government in the fight against the fentanyl pipeline from China and Mexico.
Homeland Security Investigations special agents who work under U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement have trained more than 300 law enforcement personnel in Ohio this week on the dark web, virtual currency and how financial transactions take place that facilitate the smuggling of fentanyl into the United States.
More than 560 people died from accidental overdoses in Montgomery County last year and fentanyl, often combined with other drugs, was responsible for more than half of those deaths.
“Fentanyl is coming into this country at an alarming rate,” said ICE Deputy Director Thomas Homan in a local appearance Friday at the University of Dayton. In 2015, agents encountered fentanyl in drug interdiction cases just eight times. Two years later, they encountered it 410 times, Homan said.
Pharmaceutical fentanyl is similar to morphine, but 50 to 100 times more powerful. And there are new variations of the drug, or fentanyl analogs, being created in labs all the time.
The deadly drugs mostly make their way to Ohio streets via online transactions and shipments that come through the U.S. Postal Service, officials said. China has been the main producer of synthetic opioids like fentanyl, but officials said there is now evidence these drugs are being produced in Mexico as well.
The training for local officers included studying cases where there has been successful prosecution of sellers on the dark web.
“We want to play the away game and keep these drugs from reaching our borders,” Homan said. He announced Friday that two HSI special agents will soon be stationed in Dayton and dedicating their resources to stopping the flow of illicit drugs into the area.
The agents will work hand-in-hand with local law enforcement task forces that are tracking and busting international drug smuggling rings whose products end up on local streets.
“Stopping it at the internet level is going to have to be one of the main focuses,” said Montgomery County Sheriff Chief Deputy Rob Streck. Once the product gets shipped, it becomes much harder to intercept it in the millions of packages processed by the postal service.
Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, said he’s pushing for the postal service to upgrade its advanced data technology to make it harder to ship illegal drugs.
“We just spent the last year in a deep investigation into this issue,” Portman said. Federal investigators found that those pushing fentanyl online would always request the drugs be shipped via the postal service because of the lack of advanced data tracking and that they be paid for with cryptocurrency. They also gave huge discounts if buyers purchased in bulk.
“We know how it’s happening,” Portman said.
Streck called the dark web lessons local officers are learning a “must-have investigative skill. Law enforcement has gotten behind,” he said.
Nationally, about 800 officers have received the training and HSI hopes to train another 1,500 by the end of the year.
“I gave my commitment to the state of Ohio today,” Homan said. “This will be a model for what we will do in the rest of the country.”